Q&A: Jason Matthews, author of ‘Red Sparrow,’ crafts a thriller from years with the CIA

Fort Worth Star-TelegramJune 29, 2013 

"Red Sparrow," by Jason Matthews.

  • Fiction Red Sparrow Jason Matthews

    Scribner, 448 pages

After more than three decades of conducting secret CIA missions overseas, it stands to reason that Jason Matthews would have some stories to tell.

Instead of producing his memoirs, however, he decided to write espionage fiction – and what a fine job he has done. “Red Sparrow,” his debut novel, is a winning combination of imaginative plotting, insider detail and, of all things, a recipe after every chapter.

Matthews explains his storytelling formula this way: “It’s the three S’s: spying, sex and sauces.”

“Red Sparrow” introduces Nathaniel Nash, a young CIA officer handling a high-ranking Russian mole. When the Russians sic an alluring “sparrow” (a female operative trained as an espionage courtesan) on Nate, the two spies fall in and out of bed – and love.

The globetrotting thriller (Moscow, Helsinki, Athens, Rome and Washington, D.C.) has already landed a seven-figure movie deal with 20th Century Fox.

Matthews is now working on a follow-up novel.

We chatted with him about his two careers.

Q. What compelled you to switch from real espionage to writing spy fiction?

I retired after 33 years in the agency, most of which was spent in overseas locations with my wife, also a 34-year veteran of CIA, and two daughters. With our worldwide experience, I thought it would be fun to write a spy novel with real tradecraft and terminology and gadgets and locales.

Q: How does the world of Nate Nash differ from the work you were in as an officer in the CIA’s former Operations Directorate (now known as the National Clandestine Service)?

The real world of intelligence work is a lot of waiting, analysis, research, so I had to insert some excitement into the fictional plot. All of the characters in “Red Sparrow” are fictional – and, truthfully, none of it is really autobiographical.

That said, everyone in CIA at one time had a mentor like Gable. Or saw a genius like Benford at work. Or suffered the excesses of an ambitious supervisor like Uncle Vanya. And I met Russians in my career but no one like Dominika Egorova.

Q: Which matters more: making every last detail ring true or simply writing a good story? Does firsthand knowledge trump a vivid imagination? Or vice versa?

Story comes first, in my view. Of course, details that are authentic, that are evocative, make any plot stronger. As a reader, I can appreciate, for example, medical dialogue that is authentic, even if I don’t have experience in that life. And I think that equal parts of experience and imagination fuel the same fire: Having met outlandish characters in my career enabled me to concoct the fictional ones.

Q: When the Berlin Wall went down and the Cold War ended, people theorized that spy fiction would go the way of the dodo bird. It didn’t happen, because governments still keep secrets and want to know secrets. Would the genre be as popular in a world of peace, love and understanding?

It’s been said that espionage is the second oldest profession. Why? Because there always have been delicious, seemingly attainable secrets. And there will always be human nature, base motivations, vulnerabilities, inescapable greed, overarching fear. Espionage boils down to undetectably stealing secrets.

The history of spying is full of episodes of Unassailable Good battling Pure Evil. Compelling stuff. In a utopian world of complete peace, love and understanding, maybe readers would still thirst for a good story of midnight meetings, desperate surveillance, mole hunts and sleeping on satin sheets.

Q: Why does the book have a recipe after every chapter?

I like to cook, and our family certainly enjoyed the various cuisines of the countries we lived in. I’ve always admired novels which took time to describe food – e.g., William F. Buckley’s Blackford Oakes books – and I thought that a serious spy novel with recipes at the end of each chapter would be different and provocative. The recipes are elliptical and abbreviated. They’re more like clues than formal recipes.

Q: What’s next for Nate?

More treachery, more moles, more drama.

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